Originally published on April 15, 2016. Newtown is now available on Netflix Instant streaming in the U.S.
Overview: On December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and shot and killed 20 children, aged between six and seven years old, and six adult staff members. Newtown follows the collective grief and trauma of a community in mourning. Mile 22/Transform Films. 2016. Unrated. 85 minutes.
The Grieving Process: They say there are 72 hours after a tragedy when everyone stands singularly together. 72 hours where political divisions don’t matter, people comfort each other wholeheartedly, regardless of what they believe, and a community mourns together. Through a non-linear approach, director Kim A. Snyder captures this period of time without giving viewers the option of forgetting what happened, even for a moment. Rather than documenting events chronologically, Snyder follows the natural grieving process through interviews with Newtown citizens. There’s disbelief, anger, searing loss, and deep, chronic, unimaginable sadness. The film revisits December 14th over and over again, through different perspectives and lenses of thinking, because that is what Newtown residents affected by the tragedy must do.
At a Q&A after the film, Snyder said that she wanted to depict an entire community, with families at the center. Those present in the film range from parents and siblings of those lost, to ER doctors, to the well-known community priest. Parents are at the epicenter. The film primarily follows Mark Barden, who lost his son Daniel, David Wheeler, who lost his son Ben, and Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan. “I don’t know when things are going to get better,” David Wheeler said during the post-film Q&A. “I don’t know if they ever will.” For those who lost loved ones in Newtown, it’s not about getting better. It’s about surviving terrible loss, trying to pick up the pieces, and failing, at times, to see any way to move forward.
The Necessary Gentleness: Newtown is not afraid to explore the depth of the tragedy. The film is well interviewed by Snyder and brilliantly edited by Gabriel Rhodes. There are many moments where a troubled subject will pause for an extended time in grief or deep contemplation. Snyder resists the urge to speak up or push for more. Instead, she lets the silence speak for itself. She waits until her subjects are able to go on. She gives them the time and the respect that they deserve, and her gentleness and sensitivity to the horror that occurred bathes the film in a softness that is absolutely necessary when documenting this magnitude of tragedy. The editing is equally sympathetic to those being interviewed. Rhodes goes as far as to dip the screen to black during certain particularly emotional moments. “Nothing needed to be added to those interviews,” Rhodes said. “They were so powerful on their own.”
The takeaway: As a nation, we mourned Newtown. We felt acute sadness and horror as we watched broadcast images of children streaming, hand-in-hand through the parking lot of their elementary school. We shuddered as we watched the tearful interviews with parents of fallen children. But as news sources moved on to the next tragedy, it’s become too easy to forget that the pain created on December 14th has not gone away.
The shooting at Sandy Hook should have changed America’s approach to gun laws forever. In the immediate aftermath, it felt as if maybe things would change, but when the moment came for lawmakers to officially vote for stricter gun regulations, the plans fell through. Though Newtown doesn’t dwell on the political perspective, it does follow a few parents who have become reluctant activists. They travel the country and speak out, reliving the most devastating moments of their lives again and again in the desperate attempt to prevent such horrors from being able to happen again.
When asked who Newtown was made for, David Wheeler looked straight into the audience. “The answer to who owns this story, is you do,” Wheeler said, effectively calling all of us to action. We owe it to Newtown to listen to him.
This film was screened at the 19th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in downtown Durham, North Carolina. The 20th annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival will take place April 6-9 in 2017.